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How To Make Your PA Application Stand Out

October 18, 2023

Thinking of becoming a physician assistant (PA)? You’re hardly alone. This rapidly expanding profession—one of the 10 fastest-growing in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—is forecast to grow 27% by 2032, with 12,200 new job openings each year.

Physician assistants are poised to help fill the need created by the increasing physician shortage, a crisis exacerbated by an aging population’s demand for health care services. PAs handle many of the same responsibilities as medical doctors (MDs), evaluating, diagnosing and treating patients, ordering and analyzing tests, and prescribing medication in nearly every state. A physician assistant studies (PAS) degree offers broad career flexibility across specialties and subspecialties. 

Qualified students can complete a PAS program in as few as 24 months, a fraction of the time required to earn an MD. PAs provide their communities with essential services and are paid well for doing so. In 2022, the median annual income for PAs was $126,010.

In short, there are many compelling reasons to pursue a PA career. To do so, you need to earn a physician assistant studies degree, such as the one offered by the University of Pittsburgh’s Physician Assistant Studies – Hybrid Program (PAS-Hybrid). Admissions are competitive, so you’ll want to submit an application that highlights your strengths and distinguishes you from others. The guidelines below can help.

What Makes a Strong PAS Application?

Physician assistant program admissions committees consider all components of an application. Admission is far from guaranteed: During the 2020-21 academic year, only 37% of PA program applicants gained admission. If you hope to be among the acceptees, you’ll need to submit a compelling application. 

Do You Meet the Academic Requirements?

To qualify for a PA master’s degree program, you need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited institution. Most programs seek an overall GPA of 3.0 in all college-level coursework. You also need to have completed several prerequisite science courses with a minimum 3.0 GPA. These courses can vary somewhat from program to program, but they typically include most or all of the following: 

  • One semester of Anatomy with lab AND one semester of Physiology OR two semesters Anatomy with lab and Physiology combined
  • Biology with lab designed for science majors 
  • Microbiology with lab 
  • Chemistry I and II 

Most applicants complete these prerequisites as undergraduates. However, you may complete them (or retake them to improve your grade) after earning your bachelor’s degree so long as you finish your course before the final application deadline.

Have You Fulfilled the Practical Prerequisites?

Physician assistant programs seek applicants with prior direct patient care experience (PCE). A recent study found that PA program applicants reported a median health care experience of 2,257 hours. Pitt requires at least 500 hours of health care experience before matriculation. 

Both paid and volunteer work qualify, provided it involves direct contact with patients in a professional medical environment. Relevant experiences include working as a registered nurse, emergency medical technician, paramedic, medical assistant, or physical or occupational therapy assistant. The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) recommends accumulating experience across different specialties and in various medical settings to strengthen your application. 

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Are You Submitting Quality Letters of Recommendation?

Letters of recommendation demonstrate the impression you have made on others. They testify to your abilities, work ethic, and character. For these reasons, letters of recommendation can significantly influence an admissions decision.

Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid program requires three letters of recommendation. Ideally, all letters of recommendation should cite specific episodes that illustrate your skills and qualifications.

  1. Character reference: This letter should highlight your leadership qualities, integrity, and humility and show that you value honesty and equity. Suitable recommenders include a peer, coworker, mentor, or religious leader. Choose someone who has known you for a long time and, if possible, works in the medical field. 
  1. PCE supervisor reference: This letter, written by a superior who directly oversaw your patient care hours, should speak directly to your skills and detail positive patient interactions. Examples of appropriate references include your current/past manager or assistant manager, department director, mentor, or military superior. 
  1. Instructor reference: This letter should affirm that you are disciplined, driven, and dedicated to learning. Ask someone who has taught you to write this letter. Examples of suitable recommenders include a college or university instructor/professor, a certification or skills teacher, a supervisor who provided you with on-the-job skills training, or a military instructor.

Are You Crafting Compelling Personal Essays?

Your essays allow you to communicate directly with the admissions committee and persuade them that you deserve a spot in the program. The AAPA advises you to use your essays to highlight whatever qualities and experiences you possess that may set you apart from other applicants.

Pitt requires two personal essays. The first is a personal statement focusing on why you want to become a PA. You’ll want to demonstrate your knowledge of the profession and assert your commitment to becoming a PA. Add examples and anecdotes from your patient care experiences to highlight your leadership, teamwork, communication, patient care, critical thinking, and organizational skillsand passion for patient care.

Your second essay should reflect on how the PAS program’s mission and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion aligns with your values and career goals. 

Are There Other Ways You’re Demonstrating Your Commitment to the Physician Assistant Field?

Because the PA profession focuses on service, any evidence of your investment in serving your community will strengthen your PA school application. Make sure to highlight any relevant volunteer experiences such as hospital work (including doing office chores), reading to the elderly in a hospice environment, or working at the information desk at a Veterans Association. While these types of volunteer experiences likely won’t count towards your patient care hours, they illustrate that you are serious about serving others and pursuing a health care career. If you are an AAPA member, highlight this in your application. 

Have You Met With an Enrollment Advisor?

An enrollment advisor (EA) can provide crucial advice on what the admissions team seeks in applicants and help you craft your application to reflect your strengths (and address any potential weaknesses). An EA can help determine whether you meet all the academic and PCE prerequisites. They can also guide you in soliciting high-quality letters of recommendation.

Why Earn an Online Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies from Pitt?

Choosing a strong PA program represents a critical step in your career journey. Pitt’s PAS-Hybrid program combines interactive virtual lectures taught by top-tier faculty with three hands-on immersion opportunities on campus and eight clinical placements within the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences’ network of various health care settings throughout the United States. 

You can earn a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies from Pitt in as few as two years. The program prepares students to sit for the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) PANCE to become certified to practice, after which they can pursue full licensure in the state where they wish to work. 
As primary care practitioners, physician assistants can have a  powerful impact on the lives of their patients and improve health care outcomes in the communities they serve. Are you ready to take the first step toward becoming a PA and start working on your Pitt PAS-Hybrid Program application? Contact an enrollment advisor for more information and guidance.

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